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Hometown U: Finding all things human in hockey

  • Author: Kathleen McCoy
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 14, 2016

Michael Conti's versatile scramble of a brain only needs a one-word platform -- hockey -- from which to explore the world. That's obvious from a walk through his rich, two-room "Stick and Puck" exhibit at the Anchorage Museum, open through April 10. With it, Conti serves up a rink of beer, broken bodies, bloodlust and beauty.

By day, Conti teaches photography, printmaking and video art at UAA. He graduated from the Anchorage campus with a bachelor's degree in fine arts and then earned a low-residency master's degree in the same discipline from the Art Institute of Boston, all from the shores of Cook Inlet. As he puts it, "I never really left"—UAA or Alaska.

Regardless, his art traveled -- to Canada and Asia. He co-curated a show of Alaska artists in Brooklyn. Locally he's won notice in No Big Heads, Alaska Positive and Rarefied Light and creative support from the Rasmuson Foundation and the Alaska State Council on the Arts.

But back to what Conti delivers. "Stick and Puck" evolved out of his own biography. He came to Alaska 22 years ago, "to be here, to go out into this grand landscape." Only, like most working stiffs, his quest was foolish: "I was tied to the city by life, family, job choice, whatever. There was this absurdity to it all."

The internal artist responded to the frustration. He began ice-skating on rough ice down at Ship Creek; he called it backcountry skating.

Though shy in front of people, he had no trouble with antics in front of a camera. He filmed himself -- skating on the tumbled ice pans, standing in full hockey gear in a pond of water, smacking a puck on a block of ice he made in his freezer and hauled up to Flattop, executing banana and donut slap shots into Cook Inlet. Silly and fun, he was laughing at hockey, and at our carpetbagger quest to Be Alaskan!

Conti is a lover of classic literature because "it lasts forever and relates to what we think and feel and go through." His hockey player evolved into Don Quixote of the North. Now his skates were frozen into 10-pound blocks of ice and he stood on street corners with a cardboard sign that asked only "Ice?" Quixote ran with the reindeer down Fourth Avenue. He walked the ramp in "Object Runway" at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub.

And then the laughing stopped. The deeper Conti got into the hockey metaphor, the darker it got. He read the New York Times series Punched Out on Canadian Derek Boogaard, the "Boogeyman" enforcer for the New York Rangers who died at 28, broken and overdosed on painkillers and alcohol.

Boogaard captivated Conti. Off the ice, he was a gentle giant with a handsome face and soulful eyes, "famously kind and sensitive," Conti said. Because he was too big to be agile, the only path to NHL success was through fighting and intimidation. He did what it took to succeed, dying in the quest.

Conti calls Boogaard Icarus, a reference to the Greek myth; a father builds wings of wax and feathers for his son to fly, but the son flies too close to the sun, melting the wax and falling into the sea.

"That led to the next thing I wanted to do," Conti said. "Making art is like following a thread in the dark. You don't know where you're going, but you trust you're going somewhere."

Boogaard suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the same trauma affecting injured American football players. Boogaard's face and an image of a damaged brain are reproduced as monoprints on painted-over Molson Canadian beer boxes. Pale porcelain helmets, poured and fired from creamy thin slip, line a backlit glass case like so many fragile skulls.

"Blood Sport" is a large centerpiece close to the floor, a canvas stretched and secured with lacing, a nod to hockey laces or a stretched moosehide. This one is all about the fans. While generic clip-art players skate through blood splatters, fans faces at the perimeter lust for the fight.

This is the hockey and football dilemma. "Fans are there to see the fight," Conti says. "If it's less brutal, it's less of the gladiator spectacle. And if nobody comes to the rink, you can't play your game anymore."

This is the exhibit low point, the moment when civilization slips over the cliff. Only Conti doesn't stop there. Like a ricocheting puck, his mind heads back to the bright side. Nearby handcrafted hockey sticks of twisted willow, moose antler and fur are beautiful to behold.

And in his second exhibit room, he changes pace completely, displaying canvas portraits of Alaska women and girl hockey players, just off the ice, flushed and beautiful. This section is for his two young daughters, he says, a statement of gender equity. A line from his artist's statement reads, "As the demographic changes, the narrative shifts."

"You can't live in the darkness," Conti says. "There are great things about hockey."

Not the least is the sheer joy of skating. He captures it in a black and white video showing only graceful foot strokes and artful puck taps across the ice.

The video plays on the floor. He's delighted to watch toddlers grasp for the puck sliding by. "That's the acid test," Conti says, "if kids like my work."

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA where she highlights campus life in social and online media.

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